May 2018 Church & State Magazine - May 2018

Oklahoma Legislator Restricts Non-Christians From House Chaplain Program

  Liz Hayes

Interfaith leaders are calling for the Oklahoma House of Representatives’ chaplain program to become more diverse and include non-Christians.

State Rep. Chuck Strohm (R-Jenks), who had been overseeing the House Chaplain of the Day/Chaplain of the Week Program, in January changed the program rules to require participating faith leaders to be “from the (referring) representative’s own place of worship,” according to The Oklahoman. Opponents said the change would effectively eliminate non-Christians from being House chaplains.

The newspaper reported that Strohm changed the rule after refusing to allow a Muslim imam to participate in the chaplaincy program last year. State Rep. Jason Dunnington (D-Oklahoma City), a former Nazarene minister, told The Oklahoman he knows Imam Imad Enchassi through Oklahoma City University and sponsored his chaplaincy application because he respects Enchassi’s leadership role in the community.

“When I was told I was denied, it was extremely hurtful,” said Enchassi, who gave a prayer to the Oklahoma House without incident in 2008 and has also given prayers at other government meetings, including before the Oklahoma City Council. “This is my state. This is my city. This is the place where I choose to raise my children. This is a place I love so it was extremely heartbreaking to me.”

According to the newspaper, Strohm wrote to his House colleagues: “The Chaplain Program is not a platform for personal agendas, but an opportunity to ask for God’s wisdom and to speak blessing and hope over those who are often overwhelmed by the many voices that are converging upon them.”

The Oklahoma House has subsequently announced that its chaplaincy program will change yet again for the House’s 2019 session to resemble the program used by Congress. The Oklahoma House plans to appoint a permanent chaplain but has not made clear whether it will also permit guest chaplains as Congress does, and if so, whether guest chaplains will be selected in a nondiscriminatory manner.

Amid the fallout, Strohm announced his resignation as chaplain coordinator in April. Oklahoma television station KFOR reported that Christian pastor Joel Harder, the Capitol Commission’s state minister for Oklahoma, has been named to serve as House chaplain for the remainder of this legislative session.

The Interfaith Alliance of Oklahoma has led a coalition of faith leaders and others who oppose Strohm’s rule changes and want the program to be more inclusive.

“This group is calling for the discriminatory practices that had been happening under Rep. Strohm’s oversight to come to an end, for there to be a reversal of the discrimination that has occurred and for acceptance and inclusion to be the message that the Oklahoma Legislature wants to put out,” the Rev. Shannon Fleck of the Oklahoma Conference of Churches said during a March 7 press conference.

The Rev. Gary Peluso-Verdend, president of Phillips Theological Seminary in Tulsa, wrote a column in The Oklahoman questioning whether the chaplaincy program should be ended outright and whether the problems with it demonstrate the fundamental necessity for separation of religion and government.

“I call on all clergy in Oklahoma to withdraw their participation in and support for the chaplaincy program in the Oklahoma House. Boycott it, at least until the discrimination and un-American gaming of religion by the state is stopped and the program fixed,” Peluso-Verdend wrote. “The current program is being used to favor one religion (Christian) and silence others.”

Meanwhile, in what was billed as coincidental timing, the Oklahoma Senate was planning a week of interfaith chaplains in late April to feature a Hindu cleric, a rabbi, a Mormon bishop and an African Methodist Episcopal Church pastor.

Sen. Stephanie Bice (R-Oklahoma City) began organizing the week after receiving a request from Hindu cleric Rajan Zed of Nevada to give an invocation. Bice told Tulsa World it was an oversight that she didn’t invite a Muslim faith leader.

Adam Soltani, executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations in Oklahoma, told the newspaper that Bice has been supportive of the Muslim community and he doesn’t see the omission as an intentional slight.

“I don’t find this as intentional, but hope that in the future she would consider having a Muslim representative as a guest chaplain,” Soltani said.

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